Why more children need help than ever before in Wales

Bruce McLernon, president of ADSS Cymru, explains whey the increase in the number of children being taken into care in Wales is not simply a knee-jerk reaction to the Baby P case

SUBSTANTIAL investment by councils and the Assembly Government has enabled social services to make significant progress in improving outcomes for looked after children.

But referrals to social services are at their highest level in a decade and rising demand is placing considerable pressure on these services.

National figures indicate there has been an 11% increase in the number of referrals into children’s social services in the past three years. Interim figures indicate referrals have continued to rise during 2010.

The number of children placed on the child protection register grew by 8% last year and the number of children coming into the care system has increased by 10% in the past year, with almost all councils seeing a rise in the number of children they care for. The increasing demand on services cannot be solely attributed to the aftermath of Baby P case.

ADSS Cymru feels it is critical people understand the wider issues which have contributed to the rise.

Crucially, there is an increased awareness of child protection among professionals and the public. There are better partnerships between agencies in identifying children at risk, and councils have better processes and structures in place to co-ordinate action to safeguard and promote the welfare of children and young people.

The recession has increased pressure on families. Families with low incomes often face a range of other issues including domestic violence, relationship breakdowns, bereavement and mental health problems, all of which affect a child’s wellbeing. There has been an increase in substance and alcohol misuse, which causes a breakdown in the family dynamic and good parenting.

There has also been an increase in the number of care orders granted by the courts and an increase in unfunded judicial judgements requiring more children to be classed as looked after and entitled to enhanced services.

Welsh councils spent £378m in 2008-09 providing services to children and families, and demands continue to increase.

In the next few years local government will endure the most severe budget cuts it has seen for 20 years. It is a significant threat that any cuts to budgets will impact on service delivery – it is critical councils remain able to perform core child protection and safeguarding functions.

To safeguard against this threat, ADSS Cymru is calling for the protection of early intervention services from cuts to avoid increasing the need for statutory intervention and a reduction in the number of new initiatives, prescriptive guidance and regulation to allow social workers to spend more of their time with vulnerable families and consolidating the gains made in recent years.

ADSS Cymru also wants to see a reduction in the number of quantitative performance measures given to councils, with an emphasis on developing more sophisticated measures of quality and sufficient funding to be provided where there are judicial decisions and guidance that place additional burdens on social services departments.

Continued investment in the training and recruitment of social workers and front line managers should also be made.

It is vital we build on the substantial improvements in practice and outcomes achieved in the past few years. Investment in preventative services must continue to be a priority as we seek to avoid spiralling pressures.

Councils and the Assembly Government have invested considerably in children’s services over the past few years and this must continue to ensure our most vulnerable children continue to be protected.

Placing a child in care is not a decision councils take lightly – such decisions are laden with difficulties, involve many agencies and usually involve vulnerable children living in families with the most complex needs and who face multiple disadvantages. The concern is that cuts in public spending are likely to be targeted at early intervention and support services which are seen as soft options. This will have a direct impact upon councils’ ability to support families and will result in further increases in referrals to children’s social services.